Pagan, in Africa: African Pagans and Pagan Faiths

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Belief vs Dignity

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

One of many questions arising from my last article 'Witches and the Law' concerns the much argued issue of definition; who defines witchcraft? The answer lies in another self-answering question, Who self-identifies as a witch?!

My country is multi-cultural and multi-religious and so in order to begin to answer the question, I have to acknowledge that there are several, sometimes contrary definitions in current use by various cultural and religious groups, for the terms 'witch' and 'witchcraft'. I intend to explore in a general sense only, those definitions that have become the subject of contestation between Pagan Witches and others (including traditional healers, academics and the State).

The conflict between often diametrically opposed beliefs and opinions on witchcraft is actually a struggle between two different human rights; on the one hand, the right to cultural and religious belief, and on the other the right to dignity through identity. All three of these rights are enshrined in South Africa's Constitution (Act 108 of 1996).

The Bill of Rights (Chapter Two of the Constitution), guarantees freedom of religion, belief and opinion (S15), the right to language and culture (S30), and the right to establish and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic communities (S31). The right to identity, though not specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights, is implied in sections 9 entitled Equality, and 10 entitled Human Dignity.

The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on the grounds of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic and social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth. (S9(3)).

Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected (S10).

The Republic of South Africa is one, sovereign, democratic state founded on (a) human dignity, equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms."Founding Provision of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, chapter 1(1)(a).

I will argue that whilst the rights to cultural and religious beliefs may be subject to limitation under section 36 of the Bill of Rights, where the expression of these rights engender or incite human rights abuses, the right to identity may not be subject to similar limitation where such a limitation infringes on the right of citizens to determine their own identities within a free society.

Who defines witchcraft?

I have chosen to highlight three common definitions of witchcraft in South Africa, definitions which fall within the ambit of the rights to culture and religion. I have also of necessity concluded with a fourth definition, one used by Pagan Witches, and one that is diametrically opposed to the others.

Traditional healers

Traditional healers generally regard witchcraft as synonymous with harmful magic; magic that has as its sole goal the causing of harm through the use of malevolent supernatural agency with or without the aid of ritual and magical objects. In South Africa, the illegal use of and trade in human body parts is also ascribed to witches and witchcraft. The attribution of human mutilation with witchcraft remains one of the primary motivations for accusations of witchcraft by both traditional healers and ordinary citizens generally. Traditional healers do not self-identify as witches, and do not call what they do witchcraft. They have repeatedly distanced themselves from witchcraft in numerous media reports. I have chosen to include only four examples of these reports between 2010 and 2016. All are relevant.

The national coordinator of the Traditional Healers’ Organisation, Phepsile Maseko, blamed muti murders on “heartless witches”. ... Revealing that of a total of 901 cases of corpse mutilation in South Africa last year, Limpopo accounted for 350 and Mpumalanga for 210, Maseko had asked “How could a healer use body parts or remove somebody’s body parts while the person is still alive? That means you are a witch, not a healer. ... Maseko was unrepentant this week, saying “Let’s be honest here — a witch is a witch and everybody in the country knows that. “Publicly calling yourself a witch in South Africa smacks of white privilege. In a village or township, you’d be dead even before completing your proclamation. Sapra must accept that we speak different languages and live in different areas,” she said. [1]

Maseko was responding to a media statement by the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) condemning muti murders and the illegal trade in human body parts for medicine and magic. The statement was supported by the South African Pagan Council, Clan of Kheper Temple, Clan of Mafdet, Lunaguardia, Clan Ysgithyrwyn, The Grove, Pagan Freedom Day Movement, Penton Pagan Magazine, Pagan Federation International South Africa, Pretoria Pagan Social Group, Dream Weaver Pagan Community, Celestine Circle, Temple of the Midnight Sun, Temple of the Celestial Paths and other non-aligned Pagans (Wiccans, Witches and others).

Traditional healer Bongani Shangase, speaking at the launch of the report Trafficking Body Parts in Mozambique and South Africa, is quoted as saying “We want this research to differentiate between witches and traditional healers because we do not use body parts to carry out our calling. Witches do that.” ... he and other traditional healers did not dispute the findings, but they did not agree with statements that traditional healers used body parts. “We want this research to differentiate between witches and traditional healers because we do not use body parts to carry out our calling. Witches do that,” he said. ... Other traditional healers criticised the study, saying it painted them in a bad light and asking for more conclusive research to be done so people could understand how traditional healers worked. [2]

Traditional healers say they are often accused of being witch doctors. Originally, witch doctors were consulted to drive out evil spirits believed to have been cast over someone by witches, but since colonial times the word has assumed a derogatory meaning and is used to refer to the people who cast spells for evil purposes and create deadly potions. The problem is the misinterpretation of what a sangoma is. A sangoma is not a witch - a sangoma is pure and does good. People due to their lack of knowledge think witch doctors, witches and sangomas are all the same thing and they are not," says Ms Moloi. The other distinction is that traditional healers use herbs, plants and some animal skin in the muthi (medicines), whereas witch doctors are said to also use human body parts, meaning they are sometimes implicated in murders." Makhosazana Moloi [3]

Using human body parts to boost muthi amounts to witchcraft, the Traditional Healers Organisation (THO) said on Friday. “The use of human body parts to make muthi is unknown in the traditional healing trade. No human body parts can be used to make muthi,” THO national co-ordinator Temangcamane Maseko said. The THO made the remarks following the court appearance of two sangomas implicated in the disappearance of 3-year-old Leticia Nkentjane in Boschfontein, Mpumalanga, on October 30 2015. Her body had still not been found. The Nelspruit Regional Court recently heard that the two sangomas, Jabulani Ndlovu, 27, and Themba Mnyambo, 43, both from Boschfontein, used the girl’s body for muthi."These people, if it really happened, are not our members," said Maseko. They were arrested with four other people on November 23 last year after being suspected of kidnapping the girl. During their bail application, the two sangomas distanced themselves from the allegations. The application was continuing on Friday. [4]


Academia generally has absorbed and, to some extent, adopted a definition of contemporary witchcraft in South Africa that affirms popular consensus held by traditional healers and the communities in which they live and operate.

In ‘AIDS, Witchcraft, and the Problem of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa’ Professor Adam Ashforth writes “Witchcraft in the South African context typically means the manipulation by malicious individuals or powers inherent in persons, spiritual entities, and substances to cause harm to others… the motive of witchcraft is typically said to be jealousy.” [5]

In criticism of the response by Pagan Witches (specifically the South African Pagan Rights Alliance), to the definition of witchcraft promoted by the Traditional Healers Organization, South African academic Dr. Dale Wallace writes...

In avoiding their own notions of hexing (to curse or cast a spell for bad luck or misfortune) in dialogues with Africans over witchcraft as a malevolent practice, the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) defined witchcraft as ‘a religio- magical technique that employs the use of divination, herbalism, sympathetic magic and ritual’. Without full community support, SAPRA has pursued ‘reclaiming’ the term at public and official levels and, in articles and discussions on social media sites, came to label the African belief in witchcraft as a superstition, albeit that this neocolonial perspective mirrors the tone of denial in the WSA that has been shown to exacerbate witchcraft violence, thereby effectively closing doors to constructive inter- religious consultation and dialogue. Pagans are almost exclusively white and, as a community, mostly eschew racial, gender and religious discrimination. However, SAPRA debates teeter on a slippery boundary in distinguishing the ‘white’/benevolent magic of the Pagans from the  ‘black’/malevolent  magic  practiced  by  Africans,  who  in  turn  have  their own difficulty in separating healing, curative magic practise from magic practices perceived as bringing fear, misfortune and even death into communities. [6]

Wallace takes issue with SAPRA’s alternative Pagan-centric definition of Witchcraft as religion. In doing so she mistakenly conflates the right of a religious minority to define itself and to defend its right to equality, with a neo-colonialist worldview in which white Europeans imposed their own economic, political and cultural world-view on non-Europeans. Though Pagans in South Africa are almost exclusively “white”, most of us were born in South Africa, as were our grandparents and great grandparents…  We are neither European, nor do we seek to colonize the African mind. We are Africans!

Since that article, Wallace has repeatedly reiterated her opinion that the attempt by Pagan Witches to assert their rights to religious freedom and equality by challenging the definition of witchcraft held by traditional healers is "dismissive", "imperialist", "non-inclusive" and essentially a "colonial denial of witchcraft".

The State

In the 1995 Report of the ‘Ralushai Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Violence and Ritual Murder in the Northern Province’, Professor N. V. Ralushai summarized the generally held African cultural and religious dialogue about witchcraft as “All kinds of misfortune, including matters as varied as financial problems, illness, drought or lightning strikes, are blamed on witchcraft.”

The Ralushai Commission’s report defined the term ‘witch’ to mean a person who “…through sheer malice, either consciously or subconsciously, employs magical means to inflict all manner of evil on their fellow human beings. They destroy property, bring disease or misfortune and cause death, often entirely without provocation to satisfy their inherent craving for evil doing.”

Testifying before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission Amnesty Hearing in 1999, Ralushai confirmed his Commission’s definition of a witch when he was asked by attorney Patrick Ndou to define what a witch was. Ralushai stated “A witch is supposed to be a person who is endowed with powers of causing illness or ill luck or death to the person that he wants to destroy.”

I have already dealt with the Witchcraft Suppression Act in my previous article and so will not repeat this here. It is important to note however that although the Act does not define witchcraft, it presumes that witches may be engaged in harmful criminal activities, including the use of and trade in human body parts. In that article I also discussed the South African Law Reform Commission’s proposed 'Harmful Witchcraft Practices Bill' that seeks to criminalize allegedly harmful witchcraft practices. The Commission’s Issue Paper cites the trade in and use of human body parts, and the social response to believed malevolent magical practices, as motivation for the Bill.

Pagan Witches

Pagan Witches have challenged both cultural and religious beliefs about and definitions of witchcraft; those presented above by traditional healers, academics and the state, by appealing to the rights to equality and dignity. In doing so they have attempted to assert their own right to religious freedom.

Since 2007, I and other Pagan Witches have argued that traditional cultural and religious beliefs about, and definitions of witches and witchcraft, are stereotypical and prejudicial to actual Witches who identify Witchcraft as their religion or personal religio-magical practice. They are also harmful to the innocent victims of witchcraft accusations in so far as such beliefs may form an intrinsic part of the underlying motivation for such accusations.

Between 2007 and 2008, I engaged in frequent discussions about the subject of witchcraft with Phepsile Maseko (the national coordinator of the Traditional Healers’ Organisation) on several radio programmes. Our first conversation in June 2007 was initiated by our mutual response to the release of a draft 'Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill'.

In my conversations with Maseko, she affirmed the right of Pagan Witches to freedom of religion. On public radio SAfm in 2007 she undertook to never again use the terms witch and witchcraft in either a stereotypical or prejudicial context. Her motive for saying this, she said, was her newly gained understanding that Pagan Witches used these terms to describe their identity and their religion. This affirmation was again repeated at the South African Pagan Council’s Conference on the Mpumalanga Bill in Melville, Johannesburg. Her conciliatory response to our discussions did not last, as is evidenced from her media comments about witches and Pagan Witches (SAPRA). Collaboration between Pagans and Traditional Healers did however force the Mpumalanga Legislature to withdraw the Bill.

Limitation of rights

Section 36 of the Bill of Rights allows the rights in the Bill of Rights to be limited, provided such limitation is "reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom."

The South African Law Reform Commission has argued for the rights of Witches to be limited in so far as Witches should be regulated by legislation. They motivate this argument by referencing numerous public calls to approach the question of witchcraft from an exclusively traditional cultural and religious perspective. This affirms the position taken and motivated by Maseko and Wallace. The proposed Harmful Witchcraft Practices Bill is the result of this approach.

The recent attempts by Maseko and Wallace to unfairly re-contextualise the struggle of Pagan Witches for equality and dignity as racially biased "white privilege", and the Commission's adopted traditional perspective on the subject of witchcraft which reaffirms prejudicial beliefs about witchcraft, omits a rational analysis of the mischief at hand.

Stereotypical prejudicial beliefs about witchcraft do motivate accusations of witchcraft. Many of these accusations lead to violent witch-hunts against predominantly older women. There is no evidence to prove that the accusations are true, and no evidence to support the theory that the victims of accusation really were or are witches. The harm committed here flows from the beliefs and actions of the accusers, not the victims. It is the victims of accusation who experience the loss of basic human rights, not their accusers.

Numerous media and trial reports concerning people arrested and charged for trafficking in human body parts do not demonstrate that said persons either were or identified as witches. The assumption that both acts of trafficking and the perpetrators of such acts constitutes evidence of witchcraft is based solely on often repeated traditional cultural and religious beliefs. Media reports and interviewees merely reflect those beliefs by dressing the facts of the case in the socially expected garment; witchcraft. The harm here flows from the stereotypical application of well-worn but untested beliefs about a causal connection between trafficking (harm) and witches (those who allegedly do harm).

Whilst the rights to cultural and religious beliefs may be subject to limitation where the expression of these rights incite human rights abuses (section 16(2) right to freedom of expression does not extend to (b) incitement of imminent violence or (c) advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to cause harm), the right to dignity may not so easily be subjected to limitation where such a limitation infringes on the right of citizens to determine their own identities within a free society.

It would be unreasonable for Pagan Witches to accept that the state should be allowed to regulate their faith, when no other religious faith is so regulated (S36(1)). It would be unjustifiable for Pagan Witches to be forced to relinquish their right to equality and equal treatment under law (SS 9(1) and (2)). Pagan Witches in South Africa have not been proven to be a danger to the communities in which they live, they have not been charged with committing any crime, and they are entitled to be presumed innocent of any imagined potential harm until proven otherwise by a court of law (S35(3)(h)). Legislative regulation would amount to unfair discrimination against a religious minority (S9(3)).

The struggle of Pagan Witches in South Africa is a struggle for the right to dignity. We seek only to affirm our existing right to continue to identify ourselves as Witches without being identified by the State, through legislation, as potentially harmful or potentially complicit in criminal activity. The right to human dignity, a founding principle of our Constitution cannot be limited, not even by belief. Dignity is neither earned, nor bestowed as reward; it is inherently vested from birth.


[1] Tshwarelo Eseng Mogakane, Thabisile Khoza
Cauldron boils in witchy word war
26 February 2010 - Mail & Guardian

[2] Nompumelelo Magwaza
Male genitalia tops witchcraft list
6 May 2011 - IOL originally published in The Mercury

[3] Pumza Fihlani
Witnessing a South African healer at work'
7 may 2013 - BBC News, Johannesburg

[4] Eric Mashaba
Using body parts in muthi is witchcraft - traditional healers
19 February 2016 - News24 Correspondent

[5] Professor Adam Ashforth (Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan)
AIDS, Witchcraft, and the Problem of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa

[6] Dale Wallace (Post-doctoral Fellow, Religious Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal)
'Rethinking Religion, Magic and Witchcraft in South Africa'

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Damon Leff, a Witch - animist and pantheist, is a South African human rights activist / advocate, writer, editor and ceramic artist. He is the owner of and editor-in-chief at Penton Independent Alternative Media (since 1995), a founding member and director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, the current managing researcher of Touchstone Advocacy against witch-hunts, a founding executive member of the South African Pagan Council, and owner of MNRVA Pottery. His wish list includes a Bachelor of Laws(LLB). He lives and works on a small-holding in the southern Cape with his life partner Louwrins, two greyhounds, two cats, several chickens and a multitude of healthy and productive Cape honey bees.  


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